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Geography Students Research Sustainability Issues in China

As part of their research on food security in China, the team visited a community-based organic farm. Posing here with the farmers are Professor Zhou, Michael Norton, Gaelin Monkman-Kotz, Zachary Kent, and Emily Denn.
As part of their research on food security in China, the team visited a community-based organic farm. Posing here with the farmers are Professor Zhou, Michael Norton, Gaelin Monkman-Kotz, Zachary Kent, and Emily Denn.

Michael Norton ’14 didn’t quite know what to expect when geography professor Yu Zhou asked him and four fellow students to join her for a research project in China last summer.  Now that he’s finished his part of the project, analyzing Beijing’s urban transportation system, Norton calls it “the defining moment” in his college career. “A Vassar alumna once told me the best advice any professor ever gave her was, ‘Go to the source,’” he says. “Our research epitomized that idea.”

Norton and his fellow researchers – Jiyai Bao ’14, Zachary Kent ’13, Emily Denn ’14 and Gaelin Monkman-Kotz ’12 -- spent nearly four weeks in China, gathering data on the country’s efforts to conserve energy, combat pollution and ensure the quality of its food supply.

And while they didn’t return with definitive answers to all their questions, Zhou says the students were able to draw some preliminary conclusions: The Chinese government has plans in place to curb pollution, encourage the use of energy efficient appliances, and improve its food distribution system. But in many cases, the country is falling well short of its goals.  “In some ways, China is far ahead of many western nations in making conservation a part of the culture,” she says. “But at the same time, growth has been so rapid and the demand for consumer goods is accelerating so fast, this trajectory limits what goals are being met in terms of conservation.”

Students play a part in the harvest.
Students play a part in the harvest.

This gap between the intent to preserve the environment and reality was evident their first day in Beijing, Kent says. A veil of smog, generated chiefly by China’s growing “love affair with the automobile,” shrouded the city. “We didn’t know there were hills outside Beijing until the smog lifted the third day we were there.”

The students organized focus groups and conducted person-on-the-street interviews to ascertain Beijing residents’ preferred modes of transportation. A majority used Beijing’s extensive subway system to get to work, but others have abandoned their bicycles and are using cars instead.

Kent says he saw a gap between official policy and reality when it came to pollution caused by cars. “Officially, China is addressing the problem – there are higher emission standards and car pool lanes, and there are bike lanes to encourage the use of bicycles,” he says. “But enforcement of emission standards is uneven, and the bike lanes are often congested with cars, and enforcement is not sufficient to help the bikers out.”

Denn says she saw similar gaps between policy and reality in the food industry. “You’d think an authoritarian country would at least be efficient, but it’s not,” she says. “Here in the United States, we have the Department of Agriculture to certify (food quality). In China there are so many different agencies and levels of enforcement that the average citizen has no faith in the country’s ability to keep food safe.” As a result, Denn says, community-based, organic farms have sprung up outside many cities – and “those wealthy enough to have cars are the ones able to shop there.”

Denn and her fellow students also visited an organic tea farm near Hangzhou built by a wealthy corporate executive. She says the existence of the farm was indicative of China’s flawed food distribution system. “He had so little trust in the system that he decided that if he wanted it done right, he had to do it himself.”

Michael Norton ’14 interviewing passers-by about Beijing’s transportation system
Michael Norton ’14 interviewing passers-by about Beijing’s transportation system

Bao says her research on the growing use of energy efficient appliances in China was more encouraging.  A large majority of consumers she surveyed said they paid attention of energy-efficiency standards when making purchases, and they trusted the products’ standards and labels.

Further, she says, most consumers she surveyed were aware of a new government program that provided subsidies to companies that produce energy-efficient appliances. But Bao said she also found those subsidy programs lagged behind those in many western countries. “The Chinese government may need to bring more real benefits to economically sensitive consumers,” Bao said.

Denn will present the students’ findings April 13 at a conference in Nashville, TN, hosted by AsiaNetwork, a consortium of 128 liberal arts colleges and other organizations that provided funding for their China trip.

Zhou was impressed by the amount of research her students had been able to do. “I thought it would be a real challenge to get enough done in such a short time, but we had a three-day planning session before we left, and when they got there, they really hit the ground running,” she says.

Zhou says she believes her students gained a significant understanding of how sustainability efforts are being carried out elsewhere. “We tend to be America-centric and think the only initiatives are the ones being tried here,” she says. “This trip showed there can be some very different models -- it broadened our perspective.”

On their last day in Beijing, the students rode bicycles from their hotel to the Summer Palace, dodging cars on the bike paths, Norton recalls. “In that moment, it was as if we were truly a part of the city,” he says, “and in that way, our research accomplished a goal all of my professors at Vassar have worked to instill in me: learn by challenging the material presented to you and come to understand it through a process of critical inquiry.”

Denn says the project gave her the tools she needs to continue her studies on the economy and politics of China. “In some ways, it was frustrating we were only able to stay in China for a few weeks,” she says. “But this project showed me I can work as a member of a team, to organize and quickly synthesize a lot of data in a short time.”

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 10, 2013